Written by: Simon Boyes, Adam Mason
Directed by: Adam Mason
Starring: Jeremy Sisto, Kate Ashfield, and Ryan Simpkins
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"I just don't feel safe here any more."
Even if it’s not exactly fair to stack the deck against a movie before seeing it, I couldn’t help but be at least a little doubtful of Hangman, the umpteenth riff on the found footage aesthetic, and one looking to crossbreed with slashers to boot. Previous experiences with such a blend have left me with good reason to be skeptical, so color me surprised that Adam Mason has crafted something quite effective from a dubious, well-worn premise. Hangman managed to get under my skin in a way few found footage movies—hell, any movies—do anymore.
Home invasion is the theme, as we open on ominous footage of a woman terrorized at knifepoint by an unseen assailant. Before we can make heads or tails of the situation, an abrupt cut takes us to a parking lot, where the prowler now stalks another family before swiping their car and programming the GPS to drive to their home. While the family of four is away on vacation, the intruder makes himself at home—quite literally. Upon returning home, the Millers discover their place is trashed, and, though nothing has been taken, they’re understandably shaken up. Little do they know, their ordeal is just beginning since their burglar has taken up residence in their attic and stealthily involved an array of cameras to spy on them.
Such a premise alleviates a lot of the technical concerns surrounding a found footage stalker movie. Once it’s clear that the psycho has rigged the house (at first, I thought maybe this family had installed the most robust, invasive camera system imaginable), you don’t find yourself worrying about the logistics*, particularly as it relates to how any of the shots exist. Even when the prowler leaves the house to stalk the wife (Kate Ashfield) or daughter (Ryan Simpkins), it follows that his camera goes with him. Perversely spying on this family and reliving it via his footage is what gets him off, so you’re never left questioning why he’d be shooting. Simply switching the camera’s typical power dynamic from the victims to the perpetrator is an economical masterstroke that allows Mason to go to work crafting some scares.
Rather than orchestrate the usual sequence of cheap jolts, Mason allows the film to simmer with a creeping unease. Hangman gives the impression of what it might be like to hang out with the Tooth Fairy (his Francis Dollarhyde-inspired garb certainly invites that comparison) as he stalks his prey. His voyeurism alone is unsettling enough but soon escalates along almost impish lines, like leaving a carton of orange juice sitting out overnight to puzzle the Millers. Before long, he&襊s brushing his teeth with the mother’s toothbrush and watching her have sex with her husband (Jeremy Sisto). The understated creepiness shows a refreshing restraint, and the most unnerving images involve the prowler lurking near the oblivious family. One indelible shot of the burglar hovering over the husband and wife while they sleep feels culled from the same unfiltered nightmare fuel from the early Paranormal Activity movies.
Given the slow-burn approach, it’s probably disingenuous to even refer to Hangman as a slasher. Boasting only four on-screen deaths, the body count is obviously light, and the script almost has to go out of its way to stage two of them. The eventual violence erupts in quick, economical bursts to heighten the film’s disturbing quality. Needless to say, Hangman definitely doesn’t even approach being pleasant or rousing in its violence—even when the stalker is stabbing some dispshit teenager to death, it’s so raw and disturbing that you can’t help but feel bad for the poor kid. The brutality of these sequences comes as no surprise in light of Mason’s previous films, particularly debut feature Broken, which practically serves as a poster child for the mid-aughts strain of “extreme” torture porn. In terms of explicit, unrelenting nastiness Hangman is relatively dialed down to a wavelength that makes the various stabbings and strangulations more effective.
It also helps that you care about the victimized family, too. Since the intruder is in no hurry to make his presence known, you’re left to observe the Millers and their mostly mundane but relatable everyday lives. I say “mostly” because one of the more humorous—and charming—incidents involves the father accidentally stumbling across his daughter’s vibrator. Some awkward (but totally believable) exchanges follow, and it’s an appreciable little quirk that separates Hangman from the usual dull, dramatic bullshit. You don’t mind hanging out with this family because their natural chemistry creates an illusion of reality (even if the cast members are recognizable—well, except, oddly enough, for Amy Smart, who shows briefly appears but never close enough to the camera that you even realize it’s her). Found footage movies thrive on this sort of authenticity, so Hangman feels legitimately intrusive. Even its somewhat disappointing turn towards cliché, manufactured martial drama remains brief enough to preserve the effect.
Indeed, Hangman is only a few steps removed from having a snuff quality. There’s a genuine queasiness to the intrusive voyeurism here; the invader’s camera is intimately perched, yet remains just distant enough that these people feel like objects to be observed. Outside of a few childish outbursts that hint at some self-loathing, precious little is revealed about the stalker, yet the film practically unravels through his eyes. Practically riding shotgun with pure evil without truly comprehending it is unnerving in itself, and the cyclical inevitability to its inexplicable work is even more so. In the absence of comprehension, there is only the primal, unshakeable feeling that you’re witnessing something truly disquieting and violating.
*You may find yourself wondering why no one ever checks the attic, but let me tell you: I’ve lived in the same house for seven years now, and only just peeked into my own attic last summer upon hearing a strange noise. When it turned out to just be a bug, I tweeted a dumb joke about this being a disappointing ending to the Paranormal Activity saga. After seeing Hangman, I just feel lucky. Holy shit.
Hangman is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Alchemy Pictures.
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